Law and Order SVU’s 12th season premiered on September 22, 2010 on NBC. The episode “Bullseye” places Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) in a bizarre situation, where a rape victim’s mother does not remember, or even seem to recognize, her daughter. Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong), the in-house psychiatrist, diagnoses the mother with Capgras Delusion (also called Capgras Syndrome). Victims of the disease are afflicted with the delusion that their loved ones have been replaced with impostors. This usually leads to psychotic behavior, and in some cases, extreme violence. To read more on the disease, click here.

In the episode, the victim, Rose Samonsky (Ruby Jerins), lives with her mother Amber Samonsky (Melissa Rain Anderson) and stepfather Jeff Samonsky (Daniel Stewart) in a dingy, filthy apartment. The detectives find the parents unkempt, intently focused on a video game. Rose, meanwhile, lives under the stairs in the broom closet. When brought in for questioning, Amber tells detectives that her daughter has been replaced with a stranger, which is why she does not feed or care for Rose. Appalled, detectives perform an experiment after Dr. Huang tells them that victims of the disease still recognize the loved one’s voice. They place Rose outside the questioning room door and she speaks to her mother through the door. Amber responds lovingly, recognizing her daughter’s voice immediately. However, when Rose rushes in to greet her mother in an embrace, her mother pushes her away in anger and disgust. The detectives separate the pair before Amber can seriously injure her daughter. After this emotional scene, the mother and/or her illness are never mentioned again.  

It is probable that the show, characterized by its social commentary on current events, mentioned the disease in reference to the recent New York case which involved a killer diagnosed with Capgras Syndrome. In the case, 25 year-old New Zealander Blazej Kot, a Cornell PhD candidate, killed his wife and then attempted to set their Ithaca residence on fire. Kot’s attorney Joe Joch’s opening statement urged the jury to lessen the crime from murder in the first degree to manslaughter because Kot suffered from Capgras Delusion. The arduous three week trial consisted in extensive psychiatric testimony, which sought to provide the jury an in-depth explanation of the disease. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict: a conviction for murder in the second degree.  Therefore, the defense was unable to secure a manslaughter conviction.

The episode fell short of its usually interesting interpretation of current legal and societal issues. The show failed to expand the storyline at all: there was no mention of New York’s Child Services or the charges that New York could bring against Amber. To report a potential case of abuse and/or neglect, an individual calls State Central Register. A representative determines whether to accept or deny the report by making sure that the child is under eighteen years old and under the care of a legal guardian. At ten years old, Rose fits the bill. Furthermore, the case must meet New York’s standard of neglect and abuse. The standards vary slightly among states. New York’s Soc. Services Law § 371 states that the child’s legal guardian must exercise a minimum degree of care when providing the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical or surgical care. Amber falls below the standard: Rose slept in a broom closet and was fed sporadically. Furthermore, the statute goes on to say that the legal guardian must also provide adequate supervision. Rose spent most of her time alone. In fact, she was raped at a playground, while she played by herself, without her parents. Therefore, it is highly likely that the State could have charged Amber.

It would have been interesting for the show to explore the ethical dilemmas that the State could incur when charging Rose’s mother because of the disease. However, the show’s two-hour premiere did not explore the syndrome’s potential legal repercussions further. The premiere, though entertaining, attempted to discuss too many issues, which resulted in subpar thematic development.

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